Whatever the risk, the reward for J.T. Miller was worth it Friday night when the audacious power forward conjured the biggest goal of the Vancouver Canucks’ season, scoring spectacularly in overtime to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-2.
An even bigger goal could come Saturday when the Canucks, 7-1-0 in their last eight games and back to .500 for the first time since Feb. 2, can pass the Canadiens on points in the North Division by completing a two-game sweep in Montreal.
Such a possibility seemed like pure fantasy only three weeks ago but the Canucks, strengthened by success and a superhuman run of form from starting goalie Thatcher Demko, have found themselves and are now finding ways to win instead of lose.
This week alone, they blew 2-0 leads in consecutive games against the Ottawa Senators but were resilient enough to win both. On Friday, they surrendered a tying goal to Nick Suzuki with 57 seconds remaining in regulation time and the Canadiens skating six-against-four.
Still, the Canucks did not buckle.
“The biggest thing about our group tonight that gave me a lot of passion about our group was when we got scored on, there was no letdown on our team, no heads down at the bench,” Canucks defenceman Nate Schmidt said. “It happened, whatever. Let’s go back out and get it done.”
Vancouver coach Travis Green said of the tying goal: “No one flinched at all.”
At the end of a continuous, two-minute shift to start overtime, Miller bullied his way past Tomas Tatar, then toe-dragged the puck around Suzuki before outwaiting Montreal goalie Jake Allen to score at 2:01. Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme had three forwards on the ice, and two of them were no match in the defensive zone against Miller.
“It's not really textbook,” Miller said. “I'd been on the ice a really long time, but I wasn't really doing a whole lot. They were in the neutral zone just swinging a lot (with the puck) and I still felt fresh. It's one of those things where I knew I was going against a forward, and then when I got by the first guy, it's a heat-of-the-moment move that doesn't happen very often, so I'm pretty lucky to get by and obviously it was a big goal for us.”
Equally big was a breakaway miss seconds earlier by Montreal’s resident power forward, Josh Anderson, who shot high and may have been spooked by seeing Demko stack his pads sideways like a modern-day Ken Dryden.
Driving a new forward line that included old New York Rangers and Team USA linemate Jimmy Vesey, claimed on waivers Wednesday from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Miller logged 23:36 of ice time. Only Quinn Hughes, the defenceman who passed the puck up to Miller before ending his own marathon OT shift and finishing with 24:03 TOI, played more on either team.
The Canucks won for just the second time in 16 games when surrendering the first goal.
Adam Gaudette scored on a beautiful goalmouth setup by Antoine Roussel at 2:25 of the second period, offsetting Corey Perry’s first-period power-play goal for Montreal, before Nils Hoglander redirected Schmidt’s shot-pass to put Vancouver ahead at 6:37.
The Canucks did not allow an even-strength goal.
In their biggest game of a season they’ve been chasing since a 6-11-0 start, the Canucks manufactured one of their best road performances. They did a lot more than defer to Demko, who made 29 saves and is 8-1-0 in March with a .950 save rate.
Green faces a goaltending decision Saturday – whether to give Demko his ninth straight start in the second of back-to-back games or let struggling backup Braden Holtby play for the first time since March 2 – that will be ripe for second-guessing no matter whom he chooses.
“That was a good team effort tonight right from the drop the puck,” the coach said. “We just played a good road game. That's the type of hockey we need to play to have success. We've been talking about it a long time now. It was nice to get the win.”
“We want to dictate how the game goes by how we play,” Gaudette said, “never by how the opponent plays. I think we did a good job of that tonight.”
Nobody on the Canucks exerts his will with the audacity and authority of Miller, who can be both fabulous and fallible with the puck. But his team is starting to pick up some of Miller’s confidence and swagger. They’ve transformed themselves over the last five weeks.
“It's a really fine line between winning and losing,” Miller said. “I said this a month ago to you guys, that we were playing the right way and if we believe in our game and have faith in our system and we play the right way, most nights we're going to get the results. And it just took a long time for those results to come, I feel like. It's easy to get impatient, but I think we have done a good job of staying with it and putting a good game in front of us more nights than not.”
And Saturday night?
“We haven't looked at tomorrow yet, but it's a giant game for our team,” he said. “It means a lot to us. It's been a heckuva road trip; we've been playing good hockey. We really want to win tomorrow. It's obviously the biggest game that we've played yet this year. I think we know what's at stake.”